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Full text of "The speech of Henry Berry, (of Jefferson,) in the House of Delegates of Virginia, on the abolition of slavery"

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It is due to Ma. Berrt to state that his speech on tlie abolition jof slavery, has been pub- 
lisheflj in its present form, by gentlemen favomWe to the views -wiiich he has advocated— riiot 

by hiinself. 




house: of delegates op virgi'ttia. 

\, WEDNESDAY, January 11, 1832. '^?>;' 

'•■ • -.'^^['^ . I- ^;%=V- 

Mr. Goode of Mecklfenburg, rose to move die following resolution. '' ■ 

Resolved, Tluit the select Committee raised on the subject of slaves, free nep-oes, and the 
melancholy occurrences growing out of the tragical massacre in Southampton, be dLschafged 
from the consideration of all petitions, memorials and resolutions, whicli have for llieir ob- 
ject, the manumission of persons held in servitude under tlie existing laws of this common- 
wealth, and that it is not expedient to legislate on the subject. 
Mb. Rawi)olph moved the following substitute, to be inserted after the word " Southamp- 

" be instAicted to inquire into the expediency of submitting to the vote of the 

quahfied voters in the several towns, cities, boroughs, and counties of tliis commonwealth, 
the propriety of providing by law, that the children of all female slaves, who may be born 
in this stale, on or after the 4th day of July, 1840, shall becojne the property of the com- 
monwealth, the males at the age of twenty-one "yeare, and females at the age of eighteen, if 
detained by their owners withm the limits of Virginia, until they shall resjxjctively arrive at 
the ages aforesaid, to be hired out until the nett sum arisii^ therefrom, shall be sufficient to 
defray the expense of their removal, beyond the limite of the United States, and that said 
committee have leave to report by bill or otherwise." ., ,, 



MONDAY, Janitart 16, 1832. 

Mr- Erodnax, from tlje committee on the colored population, presented tlie following re- 
port: ' 

The select committee, to whom was referred certain memorials, praying the passage of 
some law providing for tlie gradual abolition ctf slavery in the commonwealth, Jinve, accord- 
ing to order, had the same under consideration, and have come to the followijig resolution 
thereupon : 

Jtttolced as the opinum vf tkU cammitUc, That it is inexpedieht fur the present legislature 
to make any legi.^laiive enactment for Uie abolition of slavery. 

Mr. Presl6n moved that the resolution reported from the committee, be amended, byelrik-^ 
ing out the word "inexpedient," and inserUng the word "expedient" ' '''j."^f;' ■■ ■ 


FRIDAY, Januaet 20, 1832. 

MR. BERRY rose and addressed the house. Mr. Speaker — Com- 
ing from a county in which there are about 4000 slaves, being myself 
a slave-holder; and I may say fiiviher, tiiat the largest interest in pro- 
perty that I have in Virginia, lies about 100 njiles east of the Blue 
Ridge, and consists of land and slaves — under these circumstances, I 
hope I shall be excused by my eastern brethren, for saying a few words 
on this important, and deeply interesting subject. That slavery is a 
grinding curse upon this state, 1 had supposed would have" been ad- 
mitted by all, and that the only question for debate here, would have 
been, the possibility o( removing the evil. But, sir, in this I have been 
disappointed. I have been astonished to find that there are advocates 
here ibr slavery, with all its effects. Sir, this only proves how far, how 
very far, we may be carried by pecuniary interest ; it proves what has 
been said by an immortal bard — 

That man is unco weak, 

And little to be trtisied, 

If self the waverins: balance shake, 

'Tis rarely right adjusted. 

Sir, I believe that no cancer on the physical body was ever more 
certain, steady, and fatal in its progress, than is this cancer on the po-' 
litical body of the state of Virginia. It is eating into her very vitals. 
And shall we admit that the evil is past remedy!' Shall we act the 
part of a puny patient, suffering under the ravages of a fatal disease, 
who would say the remedy is too painful, the dose is too nauseous, I 
connpt bear it; and who would close his eyes in despair, and give 
himself up to death ? No, sir; I would bear the knife and the cau- 
tery, for the sake of health. I would never despair of the republic. 
For myself, 1 would abandon hope on this subject, and the state to- 
gether. But, sir, as long as there is a hope that this evil will be re- 
moved, I will stick to the good Old^nDominion ; and I believe there 
are thousands in the state, who feel as I do on this subject. If we do 
not give it up, what shall we gain by the delay .f* Is the evil being 
diminished? No, sir. Like a mighty avalanche, it is rolling towards 
us, accumulating weight and impetus at every turn. And, sir, if we 
do nothing to arrest its progress, it will ultimately overwhelm and de- 
stroy us forever. The gentleman from Mecklenburg, who opened 
this debate, seemed to think that great excitement^ and strange delu- 
sions had been produced by the action of this house, before this debate 
began. I think the gentleman was entirely mistaken. Whatever ex- 
citements or delusions may have existed among the people, before this 
debate began, were produced by causes anterior to any motion on the 
subject in this house. The tragedy of Southampton had aroused the 
people of Virginia, from' a fatal lethargy on this subject;, and I ar- 
de'^tly hope it may produce some as glorious results for this state, as 
did some of the tragedies recorded in the annals of antiquity, for an- 
cient Rome. If the gentleman from Mecklenburg, is not entitled to^ 
the merit of producing this debate, he is certainly entitled to the merit 
of accelerating it ; and, probably of giving to it a much more ex*- 
Danded and discursive character, than it would have received had it 


been deferred until the committee had reported. I, for onfe, am grate- 
ful to him for it. 1 believe it is high lime that this subject should be 
discussed and considered, by the people of Virginia. I believe that 
the people are awakened on the subject, but noj alarmed; I believe 
they »ill consider it calmly, and decide upon it correctly. Sir, I have 
no fears now, for any general results, from any efforts at insurrection, 
by this unfortunate class of our population. I know that we have the 
power to crush any such effort at a blow. I know that any such ef- 
fort on their part, at this day, will end in the annihilation of all con- 
cerned in it. And I believe our greatest security now, is in their 
knowledge of these things, in their knowledge of their own weakness. 
None but the most ignorant and fanatical, will attempt it now — the 
better informed knowing the effort is hopeless, desperate, will not make 
it. The Southampton affair, was the work of the most ignorant, de- 
luded wretches on earth. That was a small affair, as it affected the 
general safety of the state ; but it was a most horrible tragedy. The 
attitude of the citizens of this state in relation to this danger, is one 
of the most distressing insecurity individually. We are like a crowd 
of people, towards whom a single man should point a loaded gun, 
with the apparent intent to fire upon them. They know he cannot 
kill them all, but each feels that his own life is in peril. So here, we 
Tinow not when, how, or where, this evil may assail us. 

■•I admired the philosophy (not to use a harsher term) of the gentleman 
from Brunswick, which enabled him to turn the whole Southampton 
affair into ridicule. He told us he had witnessed that tragedy — or a 
part of it. Sir, had I witnessed that tragedy, I am sure I could never 
have thought of it and smiled. But, sir, although I have no fears for 
any general results from the efforts of this class of our population now, 
still, sir. the time will come, when there will be imminent, general dan- 
ger. Pass as severe laws as you will, to keep these unfortunate crea- 
tures in ignorance, it is in vain, uiiless you can extinguish that spark 
of intellect which God has given them. Let any man who advocates 
slavery, examine the system of laws that we have adopted (from stern 
necessity it msy be said,) towards these creatures, and he may shed a 
tear upon that, and wouM to God, sir, the memory of it might thus 
be blotted out forever. Sir, we have, as far as possible closed every 
avenue by which light might enter their mind;^; we have only to go 
one step further — to extinguish the capacity to see the light, and our 
work would be completed; they^ would then be reduced to the level of 
the beasts of the field, and we should be safe ; and 1 am not certain 
that we would not do it, if we could find out the necessary process — 
and that under the plea of necessity. But, sir, this is impossible ; and 
can man be in the midst of freemen, and not know what freedom isi* 
Can he feel that jie has the power to assert his liberty, and will he not 
do it? Yes, sir, with the certainty of the current of time, will he do 
it whenever he has the power. Sir, to prove that the time will come, 
I need offer no other argument than that of arithmetic, the conclusions 
from which are clear demonstrations on this suljjeci. The data arc 
before ns all, and every man can work out the process for himself. — 
Sir, a death struggle must come between the two classes, in which one 
or the other will be extinguished forever. Who can contemplate such 

a catastrophe as even possible, and be indifferent, inactive ? Sir, tlie 
right of property in the colored class generally, has been brought into 
this debate, and I am sorry for it; it is not to be treated in liie ab- 
stract. But I think our eastern brethren are to blatne for it; tiiey 
rather arrogantly advanced their right of property, as an insuperable 
barrier to our doing any thing for the removal of the evil of slavery, 
and rather challenged an investigation of their title, and it has been 
rather rudely handled in tliis debate. Yet. sir, I am for maintaining 
the bonds by which we hold this property now, with firmness and with 
vigilance; because it is necessary to the public safety that we should 
do so, and because there are vested rights to this property, under the 
law as it now is. Sir, I should be glad that this house should declare 
unanimously, that the relations between master and slave should not 
now be disturbed, that none of the present generation should be re- 
moved, except those who may be given up voluntarily. But, sir, the plea 
o( necessity will not answer in har to a scheme for the future gradual 
emancipation and removal of this class — that measure is within our pow- 
er. The evil was gradually entailed upon us, and can only be gradually 
removed. I admit that we are not to be blamed for the origin of this 
evil among us ; we are not to be blamed for its existence now, but we 
shall deserve the severest censure if we do not take measures as soon 
as possibly, to remove it. Sir, every obligation of justice and ha- 
manity demands — the safety of the republic demands the adoption of 
a system which shall produce the certain, gradual emancipation and 
removal of this whole class. To liberate the after-born, is obviously 
practicable; it has been recommended by the immortal Jefferson, whose 
Cv)unsels we have followed in so many things, with such signal bene- 
fits, but have totally disregarded in this. It has been done by our 
sister states; and the only objection of any force, that I have heard 
urged, is the constitutional one, founded upou the attenuated, con- 
temptible right of property in these after-born children, which is placed 
in competition with the lives of our sons and daughters, to the re- 
motest generations, in competition with the very existence of this re- 
public. Sir, I am sick with the clamor in this debate, about thi^ pro- 
perty, this wealth. I consider it all as mere trash, when weighed 
against the public safety. The right of property in slaves, is entirely 
the creature of the positive law; all our rules of property are under 
the control of the legislature; our law of descents, distribution, &tc. 
can be altered by the legislature whenever it shall seem expedient; and 
a fortiori, can the legislature alter the rule with regard to property in 
slaves, because the right is purely the creature of the legislature. The 
law now is, that the children of slaves shall be slaves' to the owner of 
the mother; but will it be contended that this law can never be alter- 
ed — is it to be perpetual — will no necessity justify a change ? The idea 
is ridiculous. Sir, there is an important difference between vested 
riiihpi and rights not rested, between prospective and retrospective legis- 
lation. If a child be born of a slave, under the law as it now is, the 
riuht becomes vested in the owner of the mother; and we could not, 
consistently with the constitution perhaps, take the child from the mas- 
ter, without compensation. Why not? Because it is a vested right 
M.riop tiip <;tntiitc. Hut can we not legislate prospectively, on this sub- 

ject? Can we not declare that the children of slaves born ten, twenty, 
or fifty years hence, shall not be slaves, but siiall be fvee? If.we can- 
not do this, then indeed our statute is perpetual, and the present owner 
of a female slave lias an indefeasible estate in her descendants for one 
>^;tundred generations to come — >in fact, forever. This is absurd. The 
]f right to slaves now in he'mg, is vested; the right to those to be born, 
k a mere possibility ; if the law remain as it now is, the riglit may 
vest; if it is altered, the right will not vest. How could you compen- 
sate a slave owner for the possibility of increase, ten years hence? — 
, What would be the measure of value? Sir, in abolishing the law of 
•«> ^primogeniture, we could not have taken from the oldest son, an estate 
which had vested in him, and have divided it equally among his bro-' 
ihers and sisters and himself. Why not? Because the right had vested. 
But we could pass a law altering the rule of property prospectively, 
'directing that instead of all the land going to the eldest son, it should 
pass to all the children equally. The expectancies of all the eldest 
sons in the state, were cut off by ^ measure of policy — the abolition 
of the law of primogeniture. The use and enjoyment of all property, 
is always controlled by a regard for the safety of the public, as the 
paramount law of every state. Cannot the legislature prevent the 
raising of animals that will endanger the public safety? Some of the 
citizens of this state might be engaged in raising young tigers, and it 
. might be a very lucrative business; but, sir, it probably would be very 
: dangerous to the public; and will it be pretended that the legislature 
could not check it? And, sir, it is probable that the raising young 
slaves will become equally dangerous. The gentleman from Fauquier 
seemed to think that a man might raise what he pleased on his own 
land, and enjoy whatever he did raise; but here too, sir, we are con- 
. j^^rolled by tlje same rule. No man would be permitted to raise any 
V thing on his own land, that would be deleterious to the public — he 
i: might be engaged in raising the far-famed Upas tree, but he would cer- 
_.,tainly be checked in this too. I will give another familiar illustration of 
^the supremacy of this rule, in regard to the public safety. If a man 
,;,builds a valuable mill on his own land, and has a pond annexed to it 
which happens to infect the whole neighborhood with disease, as is 
. V very often the case, what is the consequence? The mill-pond must 
r.corae down, even though all the owner may be worth may be vested 
- in the mill, and he gets not a cent of compensation. What are the 
Kjlaws against usury, and many of the laws with regard to slaves them- 
t» selves, but illustrations of the control which the legislature exercises 
over all property, for the public safety? It might be said with plau- 
sibility, that a ind\n is entitled to the increase that any sum of money 
he may have will bring him ; if it will yield him 20, 30, or 50 per 
H cent, he ought to have it; having the capital stock, he ought to have 
the increase; but we know that all persons in this state are prohibited 
.-r under severe penalties, from receiving more than six per cent. And I 
■ presume it will be admitted that the legislature might prevent the taking 
of a/i?/ increase or interest on money. In this the use and enjoyment of 
property are controlled by what is deemed the public weal. Suppose 
we declare that all the children of slaves which shall be born after the 
, year 1840, shall be entitled to their freedom on their birth, subject to 

the following conditions: that tfiey shall serve the owners of their 
mothers for 20 or 25 years, or such length of time as miy be deemed 
necessary to remunerate them for the expense of nurture; then to be 
hired out for such length of time as may be necessary to raise money 
to transport and settle them ; and lastly, that they shall leave the slate 
in some short time after all these things are done. Here the owiier 
of the females will not lose any tiling; he will only be prevented from 
making g-atrt by the raising of slaves, which would endanger the pub- 
lic safety. Here we prevent a right from vesting, because it is dan- 
gerous to the public ; we do not divest a vested right. Sir, slave- 
holders may object to such an enactment, because it will prevent them 
from making o-rtin by the rai>ing of slaves; bat, in my humble judg- 
ment, there is no sound constitutional objection to such an enactment. 
If slave-owners should not choose to hold female slaves thereafter, 
subject to such conditions, they could sell them before or after the 
commencement of the operation of the rule. I do not believe that 
the adoption of such a plan would lessen the present value of slaves. 
We secure to the present owners the whole of the present stock abso- 
lutely ; it certainly would not lessen the value of the males in the 
least. All the children of the females for eight years to come, would 
be slaves forever; and those born after that, must remunerate the 
master, by service, for their nurture. The adoption of such a system 
would give stability and security to this property; it would tranquil- 
lize the public mind; even the colored classes, seeing that a settled 
policy was adopted towards them, would become more quiet and re- 
conciled, and would abandon all vain hopes and imagination of any 
general or immediate emancipation. This process would remove the 
evil gradually and certainly, and would produce no shock to society; 
til" places of the slaves would be gradually filled by freemen, and the 
habits of the people would be gradually adapted to the change. Our 
posterity will be most interested in this matter; and think you, sir, 
they will regret the adoption, by us, of such a system ? No, sir — it 
will be the best legacy that we can possibly leave them. Had this been 
done 30 or 50 ypars ago, would we now regret it? No, sir — we should 
now be the happiest people on earth. Sir, I am sorry I have not con- 
fidence in the scheme of the gentleman from Dinwiddle, to remote this 
evil from among us. He states the annual increase of the colored 
population, bond and free, now, at about 6,000, and he proposes to 
raise the sum of $200,000 annually, to defray the expense of remov- 
ing and settling this number in Africa. He estimates the annual in- 
crease of slaves, now, at 4,500, and he seems to flatter himself that this 
number will be given up annually by their owners^ to be colonized. 
What will these slaves be worth at the time they will be fit to be colo- 
nized ? It will not do to take the very old or very young. They will be 
worth at least (.ne million of dollars ; and if I may judge from the tone 
of this debate, I cannot believe that property of this value will be given 
up gratis, annually, by the slave-owners. But this would be only 
takin^off the annual increase — it would leave the capital stock about 
stationary. And I cannot believe it will even do this. Yet, sir, I am 
for adopting the scheme of the gentleman from Dinwiddle; it will do 
some good. S^ir, I believe that the annual increase *of slaves in Vir- 



ginia, will be ia a few 5««r>, much greater than it is now. The annual 
increase of slaves throotrhout the United States, is about three per 
cent, — it may be infern*x that the increase is as great in Virginia as 
-elsewhere. The geiuleimjuj from Petersburg estimates the whole slock 
of slaves in Virginia, m. about 470,000 — at that rate, the actual an- 
r' nual increase in Virgtasjk, would be 14,000; but this has been kept 
down by exportation, s«> as to leave it about 4,500. The southern 
states are gradually imposing restrictions upon the importation of 
slaves, and by that pcMKry our exportation of them must be conside- « 
rably reduced in time tt» come. The consequence will be, that the 
actual increase of slan» wuhin this state, will be not less than 10,000 
per annum — and if we iiave to buy up all these, and colonize them, 
it will not cost less thaa ^2,300,000 per annum. I ask, where is this 
treasure to come from? And this, mark you, will not diminish the 
capital stock perceptibly. Sir, 1 am firmly convinced that there is no 
other system that is practicable, and will be efficient for removing this 
evil, than that of liberaiing the after-born children. The gentleman 
from Petersburg estimates the value of the present stock of slaves in 
Virginia, «t upwards of $100,000,000, and asks, rather triumphantly, 
■, what equivalent shall tre receive for all this wealth .'' I answer, the 
security of life, liberty, and happiness; we shall be rich in these bles- 
sings, if we have not a slave in the land. But the slaves will be re- 
rooved so gradually by this system, that the loss will not be felt ; the 
reduction of the number of slaves will enhance to the owners those 
that remain. Another objection of the gentleman from Petersburg is, 
that when this system takes effect, slaves and freedraen will be growing 
up together, and that the disposition to revolt, will be thereby increas- 
ed. V I do not perceive the force of this objection. The freedmen will 
be so many abstracted from the mal-contems ; they will have no suffi- 
J cient motive to risk their lives for that to which they will be entitled 
already, and our security then as now, wiJl be in our superior power. 
Those living at the time this plan would take effect, would be the only 
class from whom any danger need be apprehended. All who might 
be born afterwards, would be entitled to their freedom on the same 
terms, ^and would have no sitfticient motive for revolt; the danger 
would be continually decreasing. But, sir, suppose we do nothing in 
our day, as the gentleman would seem to desire, will not the danger 
be i«fini.tely greater, and increasing continually ? The gentleman 
gave us a long statistical statement, the object of which was to prove 
that slave labor is more productive than free labor. I presume that 
the exports from the city of New Orleans, formed a part of the esti-. 
mate he gave ns of soutbern exports. And sir, the fact that New Or- 
leans is the shipping port for the western part of Pennsylvania, the 
western part of Virginia, the states "of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, in 
fact, for almost the whole of the young and mighty west, destroys the 
whole force of his statement. But, sir, will any gentleman maintain 
the proposition, that a given district of country can sustain in com- 
fort and prosperity, a larger slave population than free population.'' 
Sir, it will be very hard to convince me of this. 1 have seen too much 
of the practical effects of slavery, to believe this. As a general rule, 
the slaves only half work, and the masters do not work at all. The